Editors’ Note: This is an essay in two parts. First, the author discovers Zarina Begum and her music. A little over half a year later, he finds that she has passed on; this prompts more thoughts about music and how we consume it.
Part I: A discovery
On December 3, 2017—which coincidentally happened to be Dev Anand’s sixth death anniversary—I made an interesting discovery related to a song in the film Kala Pani (1958). The song is the ghazal used for a mujra that Nalini Jaywant performs in front of Dev Anand, “Nazar Lagi Raja Tore Bangle Par.” The song was sung for Nalini Jaywant by Asha Bhosle, and it is one of many people’s favorite songs when they think of either of them.
The discovery that I made for myself is named Zarina Begum. Zarina was a protégé of Begum Akhtar (the great “Ghazal Queen” who had also acted in movies in the 1940s), and they have both famously sung a version of “Nazar Lagi Raja Tore Bangle Par” that predated the one in Kala Pani.
I found Zarina’s version of the song on YouTube, in a video that was taken from a documentary about tawaifs called The Other Song, made by Saba Dewan. At the time this film was made, Zarina was reportedly 82 years old, living in obscurity and poverty. But I thought her performance here was excellent, and I played the clip repeatedly. If Zarina could be so charming and compelling in this performance, what might she have been like to see and hear in her heyday? Unfortunately, I could not find any older videos or recordings of her on YouTube, but I am very glad that I was able to find this one:
I could not find a full uploaded copy of The Other Song (although YouTube does have an interview with Saba Dewan about it, uploaded in two parts: Part 1 & Part 2). I did, however, find a very informative short documentary from 2015, titled Zareena Begum – The last living courtesan of Awadh, which was made as a student project by Shweta Sharma. The film contains some nice excerpts of an interview with Zarina as well as performance footage from a couple of places (including a snippet of the above performance from Saba Dewan’s film). It also contains a few good vintage pictures and musical excerpts of Begum Akhtar.
It seems that in 2015 and 2016, there were quite a few documentaries and articles about Zarina Begum. There is a good article in Scroll.in that also includes the performance above under the title, Watch a performance from the last surviving court singer of Awadh who now lives in poverty. If you do a search, you’ll find more articles stressing that Zarina had become impoverished while she also became old and ill.
There is one incredibly sad article from October 2015 in The Times of India entitled, What is Awadh’s last court singer’s final wish? And the answer to that question is: “A job for her daughter or son-in-law, or an e-rickshaw for her physically challenged son, so that she could be taken care of in her last days.”
There were some arts organizations that came to her aid and she did get some government help, so it could be that her situation ceased to be quite so dire. Now that a couple of years have passed since all this information came out, I hope that she is still alive. At the time of writing this, I could find no news of Zarina’s death. I was not able to find any updates about her either.
This sort of tale is not uncommon with regard to once-revered performers in India (and there are quite a few such stories to be found in the rest of the world, too). More than once, I have seen the fate of some of our favorite singers or actors from the Golden Age or Vintage era referred to as “riches to rags.” But regardless of the ill fate that the artists meet, often their art gets revived, and it is a very rewarding feeling to stumble upon such revivals.
If we look further back into the origins of the song, that can take us in another direction entirely. According to at least a couple of sources that I have found, this was originally a thumri composed by Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor of India. In Kala Pani, the song is credited to composer S.D. Burman and lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri, but my guess is that they were more like the song’s embellishers than its creators. That is probably true of quite a few famous Hindi and Urdu film songs.
I cannot find definite information regarding whether Zarina, herself, sang the song before Kala Pani came out. For a moment, I thought this impossible since Shweta Sharma said in her documentary that Zarina was born in 1947, but a little later, I realized that if she had been born in 1947, she would not have been 82 when the Saba Dewan documentary was made, or 87-88 at the time of Shweta’s documentary and the numerous articles that appeared. So, she was probably born in 1927, which makes it more likely that she and Begum Akhtar both sang Nazar Lagi Bangle Tore Par well before Asha Bhosle sang it in Kala Pani.
And now that I have seen Zarina Begum sing this song and have learned all about her, I will never again think about Nazar Lagi Raja Tore Bangle Par exclusively as a song that Asha Bhosle sang for Nalini Jaywant.
Part II: Some thoughts upon the death of Zarina Begum
In July 2018, I decided to embark on another search for information on Zarina Begum, the “last living courtesan of Awadh.” I did find new information, but unfortunately—though not surprisingly—she was no longer with us. As per a report in the blogs section of the Times of India dated May 16:
“Zarina Begum, the last disciple of ‘Mallika-e-ghazal’ Begum Akhtar, and the only torch-bearer of Baithak Gana, died of a chronic kidney disease at a private city hospital at around 8 am on Saturday.”
According to the article, she was 88 years old when she died, though several sources had claimed her age as 88 in 2015. It may be that almost nobody got her age right, but in any event, she lasted longer than anyone might have expected, which is a consolation of sorts.
I continued on my search for more information about Zarina—especially from her admirers—and I found a great tribute to her from 2007 at Last.fm. This short tribute is actually a preface to contents that are linked to at Myspace which I was not able to access (I don’t know whether it’s because they’re outdated, because I’m not a member of Myspace or because of other, technical problems). Nonetheless, the preface, all by itself, made the visit to Last.fm more than worthwhile.
Nusrat Durrani wrote:
“Bessie Smith is eternal. I am a big fan of Odetta and Nina Simone. For many months in 2003-2005 all I heard was Mazzy Star because Hope Sandoval is a cure for pain. But there is a singer from my hometown of Lucknow, India that is right up there with all of them. Her name is Zarina Begum and you will never hear her songs or her story. She is a master of the ‘ghazal’, the traditional love song sung in Urdu, a north Indian language. It might be an unfamiliar sound to you but anyone even casually conversant with the technicalities of singing can tell she is a gifted, poetic, songstress. Once a star in the 60s and 70s, a series of misfortunes and the callousness of an unappreciative bourgeois citizenry have forced this enchanting woman to a life of obscure poverty.”
As someone else who lives in a western environment in which people are not aware of ghazal singers and the like, I enjoyed that this writer drew comparisons to contemporary western singers that many of my neighbors are more familiar with, including Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star, who were generally considered an “alternative rock” group in the 1990s. I like Mazzy Star, too, and Hope Sandoval, and I appreciate that Nusrat Durrani drew a seemingly strange kind of comparison that I might very well draw, myself.
Yet I would go further and say that you do not necessarily need to know “technicalities” to appreciate a singer like Zarina Begum, or her mentor Begum Akhtar. I did not come from India and I had no classical Indian music influences in my childhood (well, outside of records and TV clips of Ravi Shankar and George Harrison and an occasional live classical performance at an Indian restaurant that my parents took me to), yet I ended up taking to different kinds of Indian music and films quite a bit, several decades into my life. Maybe I could name a number of pertinent influences that I encountered during my adulthood, but the point I’d like to make here is that the love of great singing and music from any place is not dependent on learning technicalities, or learning anything complex, for that matter. When people are encouraged to open their minds, they do learn to appreciate music from different places and different traditional cultures. I think that if anything has prevented people from doing so—especially during an age when everyone can have access to music and film clips from all over the globe—it is the limits of the marketplace, in which sellers of culture have, for a long time, categorized everything, separating different kinds of music or other entertainment into little boxes for the sake of niche marketing. That sort of fragmentation of taste is finally breaking down somewhat exactly because of the global access brought by YouTube and other streaming services, which have helped me to greatly expand my knowledge as well. But the aforementioned obstacles still exist, as do the prejudices drummed into people’s heads that they should not or cannot enjoy—or work with—music or art coming from cultures that are supposedly not “their own.”
And with regard to damage done by the marketplace, I love a point at the end of the paragraph, where Nusrat Durrani says, “a series of misfortunes and the callousness of an unappreciative bourgeois citizenry have forced this enchanting woman to a life of obscure poverty.” But is it really that a particular “bourgeois citizenry” was unappreciative, or isn’t this just the natural consequence of a certain system that is always run by the bourgeoisie? As long as we live under a system through which everyone’s ability to live decently and stay healthy is greatly determined by money, we’re always going to see stories about artists who had at one time brought great joy to people falling into terrible states of poverty and ruin. From my perspective, the stories seem particularly, jarringly frequent in the history of film stars and musicians from India and Pakistan—ironically, as best illustrated by the lives of some who were involved in Indian films at a time when that nation’s cinema often championed socialism (that is, the 1940s and 50s). But such tragic stories have certainly not been unheard of in other places, such as the U.S.
I was glad to see that Zarina Begum survived a few years beyond the dire messages that were circulating in 2015 and that she did live until a decent old age, but I so much wish that she could have lived a better life.
 Not just the last Mughal: Three ghazals by Bahadur Shah Zafar, the poet king. Published in Scroll.in on November 7, 2018. Accessed on February 5, 2019.
About the author
Richard Singer started Dances on the Footpath, his beloved blog about Indian films/music/dance, in the latter part of 2007, when he lived near several fantastic “Bollywood DVD” stores in Jackson Heights, Queens, New York. (He is currently stuck back in the Bronx.) He once worked as a part-time music critic for a few “alternative” rock magazines and has also contributed social/political writings to some books and periodicals out on the left. He started his writing/publishing habit during his youth in the 1980s, when he used to write short (social) science fiction stories, a few of which were published in the small press.